Baking 101: An Introduction

Let me start by saying I am not a professional baker.  I have never been to culinary school; I’ve never even taken a cooking class.  But baking is one of my most favorite things to do.  It relieves stress, lightens my mood, and just flat out makes me happy!  In fact, I would love nothing more than to open my own little bakery and get up every morning, put on my apron, and surround myself with butter, flour, and sugar!

Rum Cake Slice

But it wasn’t always so.  Baking, especially when you’re just getting started, can be tricky and overwhelming.  Mix, bake, enjoy.  The steps seem so simple, yet there are so many ways things can go wrong – undermixed, overbaked, overbeaten… Too few eggs and your ingredients fail to emulsify, leaving you with a crumbly or chunky result.  Overbeat your batter, and suddenly you have crumbling cookies or over-aerated dough.  Over knead your bread and it’s too hard to enjoy.  And if you miss an ingredient, misread your recipe, or skip a step, forget it!

Yes, there are certainly challenges to baking.  But with patience and a little guidance, baking really can be fun and enjoyable.  And lets not forget rewarding!  There is just nothing better than pulling a soft, flaky loaf of bread, or a warm, gooey batch of cookies, or a moist, buttery cake, made by your own two hands, out of your oven to share with people you love.  For me, baking is absolutely an act of love… every cookie, every muffin, every loaf.

Glazed Pound Cake

So let’s get crackin’!!

First and foremost, you need to think of a baking recipe like the way you would look at a chemistry equation.  You must use the correct ingredient in the precise amount and at the right time to produce the desired result.  Now obviously, using blueberries instead of blackberries isn’t a recipe for disaster.  But not measuring out your ingredients or substituting fats can be.  You wouldn’t walk into a chemistry lab and change the way your experiment is designed and expect to have the correct outcome.  The same is so with baking.  There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but don’t do it on a recipe you expect to serve your friends and family tonight.

It is also very important to read the whole recipe before you begin.  It’s just like reviewing the playbook before the big game.  Not only do you need to make sure you have enough of all the necessary ingredients, as well as all the called-for equipment, but you want to be certain you understand any timing requirements.  Does the oven need to be preheated or turned on as the pan goes in the oven?  Does your stone need to be preheated or cool?  Will you need to allow time for a dough to rest, rise, or be refrigerated?  And pay attention to any ingredients that might require quick action, like baking soda, which requires you to bake right away to get the proper rise.

Baked Banana Bread

Next, temperature is very important when baking.  We’re not just talking about the number on your oven, either.  Some recipes call for ingredients to be in a certain state or at a certain temperature for them to fulfill their destiny in your baked goodies.  The temperature of an ingredient can cause it, and those around it, to behave differently.  Butter is a great example to use here.  A recipe may call for cold butter, which means you’re going to pull it straight out of the frig and cut it into your dry ingredients (more on that in Techniques and Terminology). This will evenly distribute fat throughout your dough, without making it runny like a cake batter, and leave room for the air pockets that make pie crust and pastry fluffy and flaky.  Or it might say to use softened butter, which is not the same as melted.  Softened butter should give easily to the touch but should not squish and fall apart under your finger.  The best way to soften butter is to leave it out on the counter for 30-45 minutes before you begin baking.  Softened butter can still be mixed until smooth (or creamed), like in cookie dough, but using it in more of a solid state allows for those same pockets of air, which will make a fluffier rather than denser cookie.  And melted butter is just what it sounds like.  I prefer to use a butter warmer (a tiny, heavy-bottomed saucepan).  It heats the butter quickly and evenly without scorching (if you’re cooking over low heat) and without that horribly messy butter explosion that happens when you overheat it in the microwave (if you do use the microwave, heat, covered, on the lowest setting in small increments. You don’t want to lose part of your butter to an explosion). This is now a liquid fat, and will do nothing for rise.  Eggs, unless stated differently in the recipe, should be brought to room temperature before using.  It is also important to note that if you’re working with warm ingredients (like melted chocolate), eggs need to be tempered to avoid being scrambled by the heat (see Techniques and Terminology).

Rum Cake

So to sum up…

Become a little familiar with your ingredients, equipment, and techniques (our Baking 101 series is a great place to start).  Next, read the WHOLE recipe, beginning to end, at least once before getting started.  Pay attention to any timing or temperature requirements as you’re reading.  Last, but most certainly not least, HAVE FUN!!  It may seem like work, especially the first couple times you might be fumbling through a recipe, but I promise you the rewards are worth the effort!  Now baby baker… LET’S BAKE!!

Chocolate Sour Cream Bundt Cake

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How to Cook Brick Oven-Style Pizza in Your Oven

Who doesn’t love pizza cooked in a brick oven?  The crunch of the crust, the gooeyness of the browned, bubbly cheese, that slight char… Are you drooling yet?

Leek Pizza

Well now, thanks to the brilliance of Jim Lahey, you can achieve pizza nirvana at home with these simple steps and a couple additions to your kitchen armory.

How to Cook Brick Oven-Style Pizza in Your Oven

You will need:

1) a pizza stone (Can you tell ours is well-used?) – You want to make sure you get a stone large enough for the pizzas you like to make.  Ours is 16″.  Also, the thicker the better (increased thickness improves heat retention).

Pizza Stone

and 2) a pizza peel – I recommend getting a peel that’s about the same size as your pizza stone, that way you can’t make a pizza that won’t fit on the stone

Pizza Peel

First, move your oven rack to the top position.  Place your pizza stone on the rack and preheat your oven to 500° F.

Once the oven has reached 500°, set a timer for 30 minutes.  This time allows the pizza stone to heat.

After, 30 minutes, turn off the oven and leave the door open for 1 minute.  It’s important to let some of the heat out of the oven.  Ovens have an automatic temperature cut-off so if it’s too hot, the broiler will shut off in the next step and your pizza won’t cook as well.  Don’t worry, your pizza stone will retain its heat.

After 1 minute, close the oven door and turn the broiler on high.  Let the pizza stone continue to heat for 10 minutes.  Keep an eye on your oven.  If you can no longer see an orange glow, your oven has gotten too hot and the broiler has shut off.  Open the door to let out some heat.  Once you see the broiler glowing orange again, close the door.

Now, your pizza stone is ready!  Using your pizza peel, slide your pizza onto the stone.  Keep the broiler on and cook 5-7 minutes until the cheese is browned and bubbling and the crust is slightly charred.  Remove the pizza from the oven using your peel, allow to cool slightly, slice, and enjoy!!  Doesn’t this look delicious?!

Brick Oven Pizza

A few notes on this cooking method:

1.)  You cannot use parchment paper with this method.  You must make your pizza directly on the pizza peel and slide it from the peel onto the hot stone.  This means you need to make sure you have enough flour on your peel to keep the crust from sticking.  You could also use cornmeal if you don’t mind the texture.

I recommend waiting to shape your dough and put on your toppings until the last minute.  You want to be able to put your pizza in the oven as soon as you’re done making it.  The longer it sits, the more likely your dough will stick.  It’s better to heat the stone a few minutes more than necessary than leave your pizza sitting on the peel for a few minutes waiting for the oven to be ready.

Another tip, shake the peel periodically to make sure the dough’s not sticking.  I shake it after I shape the dough, after I put on the sauce, and after I put on the toppings – it’s good to check to make sure it will slide before you try to put it in the oven.  But don’t shake too much: pizza dough’s elastic so with each shake it may shrink a little.

It may seem like I’ve gone on a long time about making sure your dough won’t stick, but TRUST ME, there’s nothing more frustrating than putting together a delicious pizza and having it stick/rip when you try to put it in the oven and having it fall apart or burn onto that blazing hot pizza stone…

2.)  This method WILL heat up your kitchen.  Not surprising given that you’re holding an oven at 500° for 30+ minutes, but be aware.  You may want to think twice about cooking pizza this way if it’s a hot day… especially if you live in a place like Juneau where people don’t have AC in their homes.  I live in an 800 sq. ft. condo and this warms up the entire place, not just the kitchen.

3.)  There are some ingredients that don’t hold up well under the intense heat of the broiler.  If you’re making a pizza topped with fresh herbs (such as basil or parsley) you want to wait to add those until you pull the pizza out of the oven.  If you cook these delicate ingredients under the broiler, they’ll cook to oblivion and you’ll be left with burnt herbs on your pizza.  Prosciutto is also not recommended for broiler cooking.  This is why I never cook our Pesto Pizza using this method.

Ready to try this method yourself?  Check out our Four Cheese White Pizza, Margherita Pizza, Leek Pizza with Creamy Onion Sauce, Sausage and Fennel Pizza, or Sausage and Ricotta Pizza!  Be careful though, if you shake too hard moving the sausage and ricotta pizza onto the stone, the sausage can roll off…

Sausage and Ricotta Pizza

If you enjoy brick oven pizza as much as I do, you should check out Jim Lahey’s cookbook My Pizza.  It’s worth the investment!  It’s full of delicious and unique recipes that utilize this cooking method.  Since acquiring this cookbook, my boyfriend and I have started a tradition of cooking pizza every Sunday for lunch.  We’ve tried most of his recipes and almost all were wonderful!

How to Make Tofu Edible (and Enjoyable!)

Have you ever wanted to try tofu, but didn’t know where to start?  Or maybe (like me) your first attempt didn’t go so well?  You should definitely give tofu a chance… or a second chance as the case may be.  It’ll add a nice variety to your protein repertoire and serve as the base for many tasty dishes.

I first tried cooking tofu when my boyfriend started ordering it at restaurants after reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemna (which is a great read, by the way.  I highly recommend it!!).  I may have started making it for him, but now I make it for myself.  It’s a great way to get your protein while having a meatless meal.

If you’ve tried tofu before but didn’t like it, it was probably a texture thing.  If not prepared correctly, tofu can be a soft, wet, unappetizing mess.  But if you fix it right, it can have a great texture.  Plus, tofu acts like a flavor sponge so as long as your sauce or marinade is good, your tofu will be good!

The first step to tofu perfection is choosing the right tofu.  You want to make sure you get extra firm or super firm.  Be aware, silken tofu is also graded.  So pay attention because you DO NOT want extra firm silken tofu!  (Learn from my mistake.)  Wildwood (pictured below) is my favorite brand.

Wildwood Tofu

So now that you’ve got your extra firm (non-silken) tofu and you’ve taken it out of the packaging, what do you do?  Don’t be intimidated by the pale block in front of you.  It’s time to conquer your fear!  Just two simple steps will make it edible.

The first thing you want to do is portion it and freeze it.  That’s right, I said freeze it.  Freezing greatly improves tofu’s texture. You don’t want to cook it on the same day you buy it.  I keep tofu in my freezer so it’s ready to cook whenever I decide to have a meatless meal.

I separate mine into 5 oz. portions.  If you haven’t tried out these Ziplock Perfect Portion bags, you should!  They are wonderful!  They make it easy to defrost the right amount of meat and keep those yucky meat germs off the outside of your bags.  After you portion the tofu, put it in a freezer bag and stick it in the freezer.

Tofu - Portion and Freeze

Move your tofu to the refrigerator the night before you want to use it.  Once it’s defrosted you want to press the tofu.  The more moisture you get out, the better the texture.  First, I cut the tofu in half so it’s thinner.

Tofu - Slice

You can either use a tofu press or use a couple cutting boards.  If you choose the second option, place the tofu on paper towels on a cutting board and cover with more paper towels and another cutting board.  Then put something heavy on top of the cutting board.  I use my enameled cast iron dutch oven.

I like to press my tofu for an hour or more but at least give it 30 minutes.  Check the paper towels periodically and change if they become saturated.

Once your tofu is pressed, it’s edible.  Now it’s time to make it enjoyable!  My favorite ways to cook tofu are to stirfry it, sear it, bake it, or fry it.  I generally don’t recommend it in something like a curry.  You’re adding back all that moisture you took out.

Thai Tofu Stirfry

Following these simple steps, you can make delicious tofu dinners at home!  Check out our Thai Tofu Stirfry recipe (pictured above) or Blackened Tofu Tacos for an easy and delicious tofu dinner.

Tips for Cooking with Avocado

Avocados, technically fruit, are full of healthy monounsaturated fats and essential nutrients.  If you’re looking to incorporate more of this superfood in your diet, check out these tips for selecting, preparing, and storing avocados.

Selection

To make sure you choose nice, ripe avocados the next time you visit the produce section, perform these two simple tests.

1)  The avocado should be soft.  I’m not talking mushy, but it should give under your fingers if you squeeze it.  (In my experience soft avocados tend to have skin that is more brown than green)

2)  Remove that little woody piece at the end of the avocado (see below).  If the color inside is green, you’re good to go.  If it’s brown, the avocado is overripe.  Find a different a one.

Avocado - Selection

Preparation

Once you’re ready to use your avocados (I wouldn’t recommend waiting more than a few days after purchasing), they’re really easy to cut, pit, and peel.  First, slide a knife into the center of the avocado, parallel to the long axis, until you hit the pit.  This doesn’t require a particularly sharp knife.  I use a steak knife from my cutlery set.

Then cut along the axis until you meet your original cut.  Now that you’ve cut all the way around, twist the two halves.  They should come apart easily.  The pit will be stuck in one of the halves.  Gently remove the pit with a knife or fork.  If you’re interested, you should be able to plant this pit to grow your own avocado.  I’ve never tried it so I can’t give you any advice for planting.

Avocado - Halved

After you’ve cut and pitted your avocado, you need to peel it.  Slide a spoon just underneath the skin (seen below), and run the spoon around the edges of the avocado.

Avocado - Peel

The entire half should come away from the skin in one piece.  Now you can slice, mash, or puree your avocado as called for in your recipe.

Storage

Often, I use only half of an avocado at a time.  Storing these things can be tricky.  They brown very easily!  The first thing you want to do is lightly brush the surface of the avocado with water.

Avocado - Brush with Water

You don’t want to soak it.  You need only a thin layer of water.  This layer helps seal the surface of the avocado to prevent browning.

Next, wrap the avocado in plastic wrap.  Now you can stick it in the refrigerator to use the next day.  Or if, like me, you don’t need it for several days, put it in a freezer bag and freeze.  Move to the refrigerator to defrost the night before you need it.

Avocado - Wrapped to Freeze

Following these simple tricks, you’re ready to use these rich, flavorful, healthy fruits in your kitchen!

How to Keep Herbs Fresh

I love cooking with fresh herbs.  They bring such brightness and flavor to a dish!  It’s best if you can grow them yourself, but sometimes your only option is to buy them at the store.  Unfortunately, the store sells them in such large bundles it’s hard to use them all before they go bad.  I hate wasting food, so I found a way to keep my herbs fresh longer following this simple trick…

So, when you get home from the grocery store, you’ve got your fresh herbs in one of their plastic produce bags.

First, get the herbs out of that bag and remove that twist tie that they come with.

Herbs Unwrapped

Pick through and discard any leaves that are already looking a little worse for wear.  They’ll only contaminate your good leaves.  Then place them in a zipper storage bag.  It’s even better if you poke a few holes in the bag with a straight pin first.  Do not wash your herbs before placing them in the bag.  The idea is to minimize moisture!

Put Herbs in Ziplock

Once you’ve got them in the bag, put a paper towel in there with them.  This will help absorb moisture.  Next, squeeze out most of the air and seal.  You don’t want to crush your herbs, but you don’t want a giant pillow of air in your fridge either.

Herbs with Paper Towel

Now, store in your vegetable crisper drawer and use as needed.  It helps to check the paper towel from time to time.  If it becomes saturated, put a fresh towel in the bag.  Also, if you notice any leaves going bad, get them out of there!  This will help keep your herbs fresh longer.  I’ve had Italian parsley keep in the fridge like this for over a month!  Now you can buy your fresh herbs without worrying about them going bad before you use them up.

The Pineapple Tool

Cutting up a pineapple can appear to be a baffling task – with the huge fronds on top, thick prickly skin, and long, hard round core.  And why fool with it when Dole sells it already done for you?  Because it doesn’t have to be difficult, and fresh cut pineapple is AMAZING!  Once you see how easy they are to work and taste the difference, you’ll never buy another can!  To easily peel, core, and slice a pineapple, I turn to my handy dandy friend, the Pineapple Tool.

pineapple

You can buy them for about $9 in plastic or about $20 in stainless steel.  I personally have one of each; the stainless one definitely works through the solid fruit with a little more ease, but both get the job done.  Williams Sonoma now sells the Pineapple Slicer and Dicer, which not only cuts your rings, but will also dice them into nicely-sized, even chunks, if you so desire.  With both of these tools, the shell of the pineapple remains intact, so you can use it to serve your diced pineapple, a yummy fruit salad, or as a nice, big glass for a delicious cocktail. (pina colada with an umbrella, anyone?)

So here we go – the pineapple – demystified!

Step 1: Using a large kitchen knife, lay the pineapple on its side on a cutting board and chop the top off, making sure that you’re creating a level surface.  If the bottom of the fruit is causing it sit unevenly, chop just enough off so that it’s fairly level.  If you want to leave the shell intact, especially for a beverage, you don’t want to cut into the fruit.

Step 2: Stand the pineapple up on its bottom.  Insert the pineapple tool so that the circle in the center is lined up with the core, and press the little teeth into the flesh.

pineapple

Step 3: I usually move the pineapple into a shallow bowl so there’s a vesicle to catch all that sweet juice. Applying gentle pressure, turn the tool clockwise.  It will make it’s way down into fruit a little with every turn. Stop when you meet resistance, the tool has reached the bottom.

pineapple

Step 4: Pull the tool up, separating it and the fruit rings from the shell.  You might have to wiggle it a little bit to get it started, but it really doesn’t take much effort.

Pineapple

Step 5: Set it down on your cutting board and press the little buttons right underneath the handle to remove it.  You can then slide your pineapple rings off the tool, and the core is trapped in the middle.  You can just use a finger and push the core out.  The rings will be in one big spiral when you get done, so just take your kitchen knife and run it down the side of your tower of rings to separate them.  Now you have the juice, your pretty rings, and a hollowed-out pineapple – Easy Peasy!

For a great recipe that utilizes my favorite fruit, check out my Fiery Island Chops!